Sol: Last Days of a Star requires thoughtfulness and an ability to plan long-term…skills I realize I don’t have quite yet.

Ask anyone that I play games with, and they can tell you that a wide-open board freezes me up. Give me a game of Chess or Go mid-match and I make faster decisions and use more concrete strategies…but when playing against an experienced opponent, the game may already basically be over by the time that point arrives. Sol: Last Days of a Star starts similarly: each player starts with equal resources, a wide-open board to build on, and an unknown amount of time until the impending supernova destroys all but the top player. Sol is the kind of game I’m not good at right now, but want to be: the long-term strategy, pacing, and focus required are more than tools for winning a game.

Simulations of all kinds, games included, give us the chance to learn about ourselves and the world around us. I talked about this with one of Sol’s creators, Jodi Sweetman, on a plane to Salt Lake City. We met completely by coincidence, but she’s the kind of person who makes you feel like you’re at home in an instant, and we spent the whole flight talking about games and the influence they’ve had on our lives. She plays a lot with her partner, Ryan Spangler, and they tend to gravitate towards games that require less luck and more planning and player-involvement. It makes sense then that Sol works on those same guidelines: with the exception of special power cards gained at random from triggering events in the sun, everything boils down to player choice.

You start the game with a mothership, some energy, and “sundivers:” ships dispatched from the mothership to build structures, retrieve resources from structures, or gather momentum (victory points). Each turn the mothership continues its orbit around the sun, but the structures stay put, meaning that you won’t always be near your own facilities. You can use your opponents’ buildings to gather resources, but they may be able to take advantage of a bonus as a result. However, each harvest within the sun potentially causes a solar flare, with 13 flares triggering the supernova that ends the game. Depending on the power cards used (there are tons of various options to switch between in each game), players may essentially be working solo, using other player’s resources, or sabotaging opponents to be the one with the most momentum when the nova arrives.

The box for Sol: Last Days of a Star. It's a black box with a small circle in the center which looks like a ring of fire.

Since that talk, I’ve played the game at their Kickstarter launch party, and taken home a prototype copy for a bit to teach friends and do more testing. I still remember my first game, though: Jodi’s friend mopped the floor with me, even though we both learned and played the game for the first time together. The powers we played with were basic ones used to make the game easy to learn, and Corey created a self-perpetuating loop of energy harvesting. Meanwhile, I flopped around, running myself out of various resources, and reacting to the problem of the moment. By the time I had any sense of where to go long-term, the game was basically over. (Corey also has a history of winning fantasy football leagues for what I expect is a similar ability.)

This kind of calculated patience commonly shows itself in life as “delayed gratification,” or an ability to pass on a short-term gain in anticipation of a more important long-term benefit. For me, doing the “right thing” and making a difficult choice is easy when the feedback is immediate: good choices provide instant reinforcement, while bad choices provide me a clearer lens for the next snap decision. Situations that require delayed gratification, however, leave me much more aloof: the gap between the decision and its results often seems to result in compounded consequences, making it harder for me to forgive my own errors. When the moment comes for the next decision, I’m usually too busy grilling myself for my past judgements to take full advantage of the new ones in front of me. Maybe I could have come up with a strategy to beat Corey if I’d kept my head on straight when I realized the error of my former ways, or even just come closer to victory if I’d tried to adapt that strategy as my own. Instead, I mentally punished myself for not seeing the same opportunities for victory, and the supernova vaporized my civilization while Corey’s sailed on to the future.

An image of the sun against a red backdrop.

Life itself may not offer most of us situations laden with the gravity of saving a civilization, but these style decisions surround us and shape our futures. Overthinking a snap decision can cause problems, absolutely, but the inability to work towards delayed gratification sabotages many of our bigger goals: how many New Year’s resolutions get discarded or forgotten about by March? Of course, keeping a few extra pounds pales in comparison to sealing the fate of a civilization, but it doesn’t take too many steps to see how an inability to work towards delayed gratification leaves us with problems like global warming. (Given, that’s not the ONLY reason for global warming, but I think the point still stands).

Sol: Last Days of a Star is a game that I’m not good at, but I’m going to be. Playing Sol itself is fun: with a simple-yet-deep design, it only takes remembering a few basic rules to play with others and have a great time. Being good at Sol, though, takes skills that I know I still need to find within myself, skills that will require practice and (likely) many more losses. Like I mentioned before, I work best when much of the game board has already been set, but how much better could I be in those situations if I shaped the board to my benefit beforehand? Though we don’t control much of what happens to us in life, we help shape our own boards through our reactions to what life throws at us and our choices about what remains important through the chaos.

If you’re interested in learning more about Sol: Last Days of a Star, you can learn more about how the game plays by viewing the YouTube video below, or you can check it out at its Kickstarter page (which only runs for a couple more weeks).